SBJ/September 30 - October 6, 2002/Special Report

Teams aim pitches at ‘special nature’ of fans

The Predators’ Smashville campaign tries
to create a “state of mind.”

This is not your typical sleepy Southern town.

In this magical, mystical place, the action is fast-paced, speeding is rewarded and there are positively no bans on loud noise. Offensive behavior is encouraged.

Hunting is popular here. The hit list includes such prey as Penguins, Coyotes, Bruins and Panthers. Wings. Kings and Canadiens aren't safe, either. They get roughed up, shot at and shown the door.

Welcome to Smashville, the imaginary place of 17,113 people brought to life this year through a marketing campaign by the creative minds of the Nashville Predators.

"We wanted to get back to our country music and marry the smash hits of music row with the hard hits of hockey," said Tom Ward, the team's executive vice president of business operations. "What we're trying to portray is almost a state of mind."

Teams have rolled out the welcome mat this season with a wide range of marketing pushes that range from homespun to slick. None would talk about their marketing budgets, but several clubs said they have done extensive surveys to see if their campaigns are taking hold. They look at TV and radio ratings or game attendance, depending on their goal, to judge whether they are working.

They include offering fans a chance to join The Team of 18,000 in Minnesota, Bleed Blue with the St. Louis faithful or jump on the This is Hockey bandwagon in Carolina. Not to mention the Love This Team. Love This Game mantra in Vancouver.

But whatever the catch phrase, hockey marketers know the stakes are high in a sport that relies primarily on game attendance for revenue. They say it's especially important in these soft economic times where competition is rough.

"It's a much tougher business as a whole these days," said Scott Carmichael, NHL vice president of club marketing. "People need to be more creative and turn over every rock and look at every opportunity to be successful."

Carmichael, a 20-year veteran of hockey marketing, said this year's focus by the league office and many of the clubs will be on the "special nature" of hockey fans and their passion, dedication and loyalty to the sport.

In Minnesota Wild country, the concentration had been on creating alliances with the various hockey associations in the state, giving money and building support. But Matt Majka, the Wild's marketing vice president, said the emphasis this year will be on promoting the team and its players, and the fans who have come along for the ride.

The St. Louis Blues are continuing their popular Bleed Blue campaign with new spots designed to celebrate the passion fans have for the team, said Jim Woodcock, senior marketing and communications vice president.

There's the fan with the Blue Note logo carved into his hairy chest, the wedding cake featuring the bride in traditional white and the groom in a Blues jersey, and the Chris Pronger bobblehead displayed prominently with the rest of the china in the cabinet.

"I'm a firm believer that when the going is good, you get going as well, because that will help you when times are tough and you're not winning," Woodcock said.

In Vancouver, there are no quick cut, extreme commercials airing. Team officials said the approach this season is simple and subdued, just people talking about hockey in different places in the community.

There's the barbershop that has been cutting players' hair for 20 years, the neighborhood where kids play street hockey, a pizza place and an antique shop.

"These are heart-warming, genuine stories that at the same time are funny," said John Rizzardini, the Canucks' senior sales and marketing vice president.

"I can't control the product on the ice," Rizzardini said. "But what I can try to do is bond a community to a team so no matter what happens, they'll feel great about us."

David Schwartz is a writer in Phoenix.

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